Tag Archives: violence

violence and mental illness: how should we talk about it?

earlier this week, our newspapers were full of the tragic story of clare shelswell, the little girl who was killed by her stepfather, peter wilson. on june 29, the vancouver sun devoted half of page 1 and 2 to it. on page 2, there was also an article that contained an interview with an expert related to the case.

as often happens, once the article was written and the newspaper put together, it was printed in several phases. these early versions often end up on the internet and the printed versions are distributed to outlying areas. any corrections that are made tend to end up in the vancouver printings.

as it turns out, the article on page 2 that can be found on the internet and was printed in the earlier versions reads

bipolar patients can become violent, prof says

mental health advocates, tod maffin for example, got understandably mad about it.

yup, those bipolar people. they can become violent. which probably means that half of them are violent, right? (that’s how the human brain often thinks: “can” means either yes or no, so “obviously”, there being two choices, there is a 50 per cent chance for one of the two possibilities to occur). fortunately, thanks to tod, the headline was corrected to read “bipolar patients rarely become violent, prof says” (my emphasis).

i would say, though, that the actual article that reported the killing was quite responsible. here is the excerpt that mentions that the killer had bipolar disorder:

sergi [the public defender] described wilson as “lucid” during the brief court appearance, adding his client appeared to understand the proceedings.

no formal charge has been laid. wilson earlier waived his rights under state law to be charged within 72 hours of his arrest.

his next court appearance is scheduled for july 12.

meanwhile, prosecutors are considering whether to pursue the death penalty.

sergi said an accused’s criminal history and the details of the alleged crime are key factors that must be weighed in a capital case.

sergi was uncertain how a mental illness defence might affect the death-penalty decision.

both wilson and his wife told police he suffers from bipolar disorder for which he takes medication.

what do you think? how should violence perpetrated by people with mental health issues be portrayed? for example, should the article that talks about violence and bipolar disorder have mentioned that persons with mental health issues are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators?

family life – a fantasy

she opens the door.

“laura hapley?”

“yes …. ?”

“and wally hapley?”

“yes. and you are … ?”

he is 6’6″, broad shouldered, dressed in thick leather from boots to gloves.

“could i speak to mr. hapley, as well, please?”

“he is busy right now. what is this about?” she glances towards a door in the back.

he produces two envelopes from his jacket, cream coloured, each with a red seal.

“i will need to speak to you and him together. there is a request for you to read these documents in my presence.”

“but … ”

“laura! what is it!”

she looks at the tall man, then to the door, then heads towards back.

“please.” the tall man raises his big, gloved hand. he shows her a business card.

“my name is arch. michael arch.”

she glances at the name printed big and bold. “i will tell my husband. maybe he …”

“please. he will have to come out.”

“he is a very busy man. he cannot be interrupted right now.”

“this is important. it cannot wait, i’m afraid. mr. hapley!” he does not have to raise his voice much, it is deep and resonant.

“laura! i’m busy!” laura’s eyes open wide, then flicker, then she closes them. maybe it is that she heard something in that voice. maybe something she has heard many times before.

a little dog appears behind laura. it curls around her legs like a cat. beside the entrance stands a small table, on it a vase with flowers. lilies and sunflowers, an odd combination, but beautifully arranged.

the tall man does not move much and sends a little smile to laura and the dog. “mr. hapley, we need you here, could you spare a moment, please!” again, he hardly raises his voice.

a thump and out the door rushes a man. he might be in his early seventies, with hair almost white, well groomed, a professorial look about him. and a look of great annoyance, shot at laura, then the tall man.

“who let you in? laura!” laura shoots a glance at him, then the vase. the little dog moves closer.

“i am busy and you’re trespassing. leave or i’ll call – ”

“- the police,” finishes the tall man. “that will be quite alright. mr. hapley, mrs. hapley, i have two documents that i have been asked to witness you read in my presence.”

“who asked you? ” mr hapley approaches the tall man. “move!” he hisses at the little dog. laura flinches, starts to bend down to the dog but with a glance at mr hapley, just gently shoos the dog away with her foot.

“please open and read these documents. this is yours, mrs. hapley,” he extends one to laura. mr hapley snatches it, “i can read both of them. we are a married couple. we have no secrets from each other.”

the tall man takes the envelope from wally hapley and returns it to laura. she looks at wally. “i’ll read it later,” he snarls, “i’ll probably have to explain it to you, anyway.”

a low, quiet, growl emanates from the tall man. “that will be enough, mr. hapley.”

wally hapley tears open his envelope, anger in his eyes.

laura hapley tears open her envelope, hands shaking.

wally, years ago when the doorbell rang, you opened and the man said, ‘if you ever lay hands on laura again, i will kill you.’

it is time to remember this now.

each time you are about to raise your hand against laura, remember it, and act accordingly.

each time you are about to raise your voice against her, remember it, and act accordingly.

each time you are about to threaten her, remember it, and act accordingly.

each time you are about to raise your hand or your voice against someone or something beloved by laura, or threaten them, remember it, and act accordingly.

remember it, and act accordingly, and you will live in peace.

if you need help, contact mr. michael arch.


laura, you are a beautiful, strong, creative, wise and compassionate woman.

it is time to remember this now.

each time someone, anyone, raises their hand against you, remember it, and act accordingly.

each time someone, anyone, raises their voice against you, remember it, and act accordingly.

each time someone, anyone, threatens you, remember it, and act accordingly.

each time someone, anyone, raises their hand or voice against someone or something you love, or threatens them, remember it, and act accordingly.

remember it, and act accordingly, and you will live in peace.

if you need help, contact mr. michael arch.

four hands tremble. two hands are folded, relaxed, strong.

the tall man looks at wally until he looks back. “you understand?”

wally nods, hypnotized.

“if you understand, say, ‘yes, i understand.'”

“yes, i understand.”

the tall man looks at laura. her eyes are already trained on him. “you understand?”

laura nods. “yes, ” she says, with a voice not quite so quiet anymore. “yes, i understand.”

“please shake hands.”

their hands reach out towards each other. one thin, elegant hand, just slightly olive-coloured, moving one inch, then another, perceiving, as hands do and as the conscious brain hardly ever notices, the small, small, change in the atmosphere as the other hand approaches – a tiny rush of air movement, ever so much more warmth – – and the other hand, bigger, a bit boney now in older age, shaking a little, with a bead of sweat appearing in the life line crease – and they touch. and grasp. and hold.


“i apologize,” they both say, simultaneously.

“you know who needs to apologize.”

pause. laura looks at the tall man, then at her husband. he looks down.

“i apologize,” he says, almost whispering.

“please look into each other’s eyes.”

the older man raises his head. very, very slowly. it is a heavy head.

“i apologize,” he says, and the words hardly make it out of his mouth but he does hold her eyes.

“good.” the tall man bows.

he walks back out to his motorcycle. the little dog runs out a few steps with him. nobody scolds him as lets out a happy little bark.

i wrote this while not being able to sleep because of jet lag.  yes, i’m back in vancouver.  the story?  there is some truth to it, in real life.  i hope all of it comes true.

september 11 – the happiest day of my life

hands holding a baby“what was the happiest day of your life?” this question comes up, sometimes. until seven years ago, it was “september 11, 1973.”

that was the day my oldest child was born. it was the least pleasant of my three births, what with me an unwed teenage mother in a hopelessly old-fashioned veteran’s hospital in munich, an arch-catholic part of germany, and my poor little infant immediately snatched away in the belief that sterile hospital cradles were the best thing that could happen to a newborn.

never mind any of that.

i was insanely happy.

despite the exhaustion of labour, i couldn’t sleep the whole night. the miracle of the experience kept looping around in my mind and heart. one moment, excruciating pain, the other, a new person emerging into the world, healthy, with a loud voice, 10 fingers, 10 toes, eyes, everything! absolutely mind-boggling.

my other two births were even easier than the first and quite a bit more pleasant, especially the last one, complete with bob marley, miles davis and glenn gould providing accompaniment, and a bunch of friends and family present. but september 11, 1973 – well, it was that special first time.

when the day after i found out that there had been a military coup in chile, which made it prohibitive for us to move there, i was shocked, but somehow it couldn’t wipe out the overwhelming happiness i felt at having become a mother.

and then september 11, 2001 happened. a day that, in my mind, was dedicated to my son. like so many of us, i remember much of that day – how, for example, i was so shaken by the events that i spilled a big bag full of sushi on the street that i had bought for lunch for a friend and myself.

it’s such a little thing. much bigger things have happened and are still happening that have their roots in september 11, for example people experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, as predicted here and then later confirmed in a study here.

and yet, we almost always come back to what is personally most significant for us, don’t we? for me, it’s the irresolvable clash between the memory of the happiest moment of my life and the horror of the most violent moment on U.S. soil.

as i am writing this, i realize that i want to find a way to elevate the beauty of my son’s birth over the horror of 9/11 and the disconnect i feel over holding both in my awareness. not that i want to, in any way, diminish or forget the terrible suffering of those who died and their families, friends and loved ones.

but peace will always be this: holding life up higher than destruction.

image by coast guard BM

bullying stops here!

today is international stand up to bullying day.  students and lots of other people all across canada and the world wear pink to mark the day.

jordan behan thinks pink

last year, two students in nova scotia (canada’s east coast) donned and distributed pink shirts after a classmate fell victim to homophobic bullying for wearing pink to school.

this became the driving force for teachers across the country to renew a call to end bullying.

“the kids that come forward are not very good victims any more because they’re standing up for themselves, trying to get things changed, they tend not to be victimized anymore”

the term “bullying” is most often used at school but let’s not forget that it can apply in other situations as well – at work, in the boardroom, at sports activities, in volunteer situations, here on the internet, in hospitals, etc.

have you ever been bullied? have have you ever stood up to a bully?

(image by and of vancouver blogger jordan behan – jordan, it just
so happened that yours was the best pink pic on creative commons!)

mental illness and violence

most people have little reason to fear violence from people with mental illness, even in its most severe forms.

historically, in the 1950s, mental illness carried great social stigma, especially linked with fear of unpredictable and violent behaviour. while there is greater public understanding of mental illness nowadays, paradoxically, the perception of people with psychosis as being dangerous is stronger today than in the past.

so why is fear of violence so entrenched? most speculations focus on media coverage and deinstitutionalization. one series of surveys found that selective media reporting reinforced the public’s stereotypes linking violence and mental illness and encouraged people to distance themselves from those with mental disorders. fortunately, negative perceptions about severe mental illness can be lowered by furnishing empirically based information on the association between violence and severe mental illness.

indeed, people with a mental illness are 2.5 more likely to be the victims of violence than other members of society. this tends to happen when poverty, a transient lifestyle or substance use are present. any of these factors make a person with mental illness more vulnerable to assault and the possibility of becoming violent in response.

however, mental illness plays no part in the majority of violent crimes. alcohol and substance abuse far outweigh mental illness in contributing to violence. a 1996 health canada review found that the strongest predictor of violence and criminal behaviour is not major mental illness, but past history of violence and criminality.

on rare occasions, people with mental illness who feel threatened and/or whose symptoms override personal control can behave violently. this can happen with command hallucinations or feeling that one’s mind is being dominated by outside forces. such symptoms and behaviour tend to occur more often when the person is off their medication.

living in a stressful, unpredictable environment with little family or community support can also contribute to occasional violent behaviour by individuals suffering from psychosis or neurological impairment.

patterns of violence are similar regardless of a person’s mental health status. for example, people with a mental illness are no more likely than anyone else to harm strangers. violent behaviour by anyone is generally aimed at family and friends, rather than strangers, and it typically happens in the home, not in public.

most of this violence is committed by men and directed to women. the risk for family violence is, among others, also related to low socioeconomic status, social stress, social isolation, poor self esteem and personality problems.

the major predictors of violence, regardless of mental health status, are being young, male, of lower socio-economic status, and abusing alcohol or drugs. substance disorders are major contributors to community violence, perhaps accounting for as much as a third of self-reported violent acts, and seven out of every 10 crimes of violence among mentally disordered offenders.

too much past research has focussed on the person with the mental illness, rather than the nature of the social interchange that led up to the violence. therefore, we do not know enough about the nature of these relationships and the context of violence, and much less than we should about opportunities for primary prevention.

here in canada, a senate committee has released a report on mental health, mental illness and addiction. while it was generally applauded, there was considerable concern that the report is “gender blind” and silent on the issue of violence against girls and women, which has a significant and well-documented impact on long-term physical and mental health.

(this article draws from the following sources: canadian mental health association, world psychiatry, canadian women’s health network, mental health: a report of the surgeon general)

(this post made the list of the surfers paradise hullabaloo)